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I try not to read other people’s reviews when I decide to write about a book, but I have to confess I was drawn to this collection by the raves I was hearing about in The New York Times and elsewhere.” Amazon and Shelf Awareness picked this as one of the best books of February and the Times called it “lyrical and funny, fantastic and meditative,” as well as “hilarious, exquisite, first-rate.” Kirkus called it “consistently arresting..startling..profound.” I often react negatively to effusive praise, it triggers my anti-hype genes and sets the bar too high, and I end up being disappointed. I was not disappointed when I read Karen Russell’s brilliant fourth book. “Vampires” is just as good as all the hype. It is a literary event in itself.
I know many book lovers who do not read short stories, for reasons I have never understood. Many booksellers even avoid the term, there is so much resistance to it. Short story writers (I can testify) are viewed with skepticism in the publishing industry, few of them sell well. “Vampires,” though, is one of the best books I have read, and Karen Russell has emerged as that rarest of things, a young writer with a master’s craft of language and imagination. The stories defy easy description, they are so original, eight strange tales that range from funny and rueful to chilling, all wonderful in their own way. The title story – two aging vampires living together in a sun drenched lemon grove in Italy, seeking to quench their thirst for blood, is a fable of mortal terror love and addiction – is marvelous. I was hooked from the minute the protagonist learns from his new love that he never really needed to avoid the sun all those many years or sleep in coffins, that was all just silly rumor.
One haunting story tells of a community of Japanese girls held captive in a silk factory, their poisoned bodies slowly trans-muting themselves into silkworms, spinning threads from their own bellies. The girls, all taken from their villages by an mesmerizing but heartless “agent,” take revenge and escape by seizing the means of production for their own rebellious ends. I took this as a fable of the de-humanizing nature of work in America, a story to reminds us of the ravages to the workplace brought on by greedy corporations (I thought of the people working endless hours in those vast Amazon warehouses for little money under great pressure so we can get our free shipping).
A massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal the most grievous wounds by manipulating the tattoos on an Iraqi veteran’s lower torso. A depressed teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull’s nest. A group of boys stumbles across a mutilated scarecrow bearing an eerie resemblance to a vanished boy they cruelly tormented, and what seems to be an ordinary tale of high school bullying becomes a sinister fantasy of guilt and atonement. In the American West, families are obsessed with acquisition and legitimacy, and they pay an almost unimaginable price for their obsession and hunger.
Everyone will see these extraordinary stories differently but I saw them as piercing and beautiful commentaries on our live in the contemporary world. It takes an extraordinary amount of confidence and skill for any writer to take on stories that are so brave and brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed. I enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone who loves language and imagination. Put an evening aside, drink a glass of wine, turn off your devices and go on this wild and wonderful ride into the very best of the human imagination. These stories will massage your heart, whisper in your ear. Maybe tickle your soul a bit.
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